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Filling a Progressive News Hole

Joan Sekler's Alternative Network Gets the Stories Missed by Mainstream Media


Even before it happened, Joan Sekler knew that what Americans saw televised from last summer's Republican National Convention would be nothing more than a fine-tuned political infomercial for presidential candidate Bob Dole.

The news media themselves complained loudly about the lack of conflict inside the San Diego Convention Center, and even "Nightline's" Ted Koppel left before it was over.

But Sekler knew that few reporters had actually ventured outside to explore the daily clash of ideas between protesters and party delegates.

A Santa Monica journalist and left-wing activist, she had come to the beach city prepared to pick up the slack. Each convention day, a 15-member volunteer video crew from Sekler's newly created Los Angeles Alternative Media Network set out to record events unlikely to make the evening news. Just a block from the major media's temporary studios, the crew found a heated debate provoked by a gay rights march led by Newt Gingrich's lesbian sister, Candace, and emotional Mexican American teenagers defending college affirmative action programs to a cheering crowd.

Working from rented office space, Sekler, a volunteer editor, and the video crew spent the convention nights frantically editing film. One day after the convention ended, they sent a 57-minute video dubbed "Breaking Conventions: The Unofficial, Unconventional Coverage of the 1996 Republican Convention" via satellite to more than 100 public-access cable stations across the nation.

"We were exhausted and we were up very late every night, but it was well worth it," said Sekler, 55, a soldier for progressive causes since her college days. "When we showed the video around the country, people just loved it. It told the story."

For the 150 independent journalists who are members of the Alternative Media Network, the video is nothing short of a triumph in the 1990s, a time, they say, that is increasingly difficult for journalists with a politically progressive agenda.

It's certainly not like the 1960s, when news of the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements could be found in dozens of new alternative weeklies and underground newspapers in large cities.

Many alternative journalists blame the trend on corporate takeovers of entire news companies, cable stations and newspapers, reducing the number of independent media outlets.

"I just think when you have an oligarchy of media that there is less chance for democracy, there is less chance for other voices," said Sekler, who cajoled reporters to attend organizational meetings last year.

In 10 months, the network's monthly meetings have become a vibrant working atmosphere for left-thinking journalists. Members are producing a pilot for a weekly video news show, recruiting for a public radio training program and transforming a monthly printed listing of progressive events called ChangeLinks into a newspaper.

On a recent Saturday, more than 50 independent video producers arrived at a meeting in Hollywood organized by Sekler to screen their clips before an executive in search of work to broadcast on a new city-funded public access channel.

Sheila Gibbons, production manager of the L.A. Free Press Web page, said that as a network member she is able to find potential contributors to her project. The Web page is a resurrection of the L.A. Free Press weekly newspaper, one of the first alternative publications of the 1960s.

"I can't even express how useful it is to get together with like-minded people," Gibbons said.

Network members said their goal is not only to inform those of similar beliefs, but to reach those unaware of the alternative press.

"I like the idea of the regular citizens finding out the wide and varied nature of the progressive society in Los Angeles," said John Johnson, editor of ChangeLinks. "These events do not get any publicity. People who see it for the first time are amazed that all this stuff is going on."

Other network members complain that most news coverage of Los Angeles not only shuts out left-leaning views, but is increasingly likely to skip the nuts-and-bolts of reporting basic community news from the city's diverse neighborhoods. Frank Stolze, news director of KPFK-FM (90.7), a progressive radio station, notes that the recent victory of a community group against a chemical plant somehow won little coverage in Los Angeles' major news media.

Organizing to create their own progressive news venues is a smart move by network members, said Bryce Nelson, a USC journalism professor. As independent media are absorbed by conglomerates, alternative reporters are left with fewer outlets for their work.

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